Fight against Covid-19 exposed Kenya’s socio-economic class divisions

Covid curfew Nairobi

Members of the public, wearing masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19, queue for public transport home at the Kencom bus terminus in the Nairobi central business district, ahead of the curfew hour, on April 7, 2021.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Using Open Source Intelligence (or OSINT), the Nation has established that class wars have been picking up online since the first coronavirus case was reported in Kenya.

Shirleen Awino, who works in Kisumu, was on leave in Nairobi when the government imposed a lockdown on Nairobi, Machakos, Nakuru, Kiambu, and Kajiado counties on March 26 this year.

While the announcement caught her off guard, she says, it opened her eyes to the laxity in the transport industry regarding Covid-19 restrictions.

On her way to Nairobi, she had used a bus that carried half its passenger capacity.

“Between every passenger was an empty seat,” she says. “Except for lacking hand sanitisers, my journey by bus was okay.”

This was a new rule that Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia had imposed a few days after Kenya confirmed its first Covid-19 case in March 2020.

In Nairobi, she stayed with her sister in Utawala. On her irregular visits to the city centre, she used public transport and observed that there was hardly any social distancing.

“The bus was either carrying full capacity, especially in the evening, or the tout would ask you to give up your space to somebody else who can accommodate another person beside them,” she told Nation.Africa.

“We would be stopped by the police sometimes. They would check and wave for the bus to proceed. Other times, they would stop the bus and arrest the ‘excess’ passengers,” she added.

Flight option

When movement restrictions were lifted in the five-county region, there was a sigh of relief, and because her leave had ended, an urgent issue at her office needed her attention and she had to fly back to Kisumu.

The flights that day were a “bit expensive, understandably so because everyone was rushing to book one”.

“Contrary to a long-distance journey by road, where transporters are advised to carry at most two-thirds of the capacity, the airplane was full to capacity,” she narrated.

She opted to fly back home because buses plying that route had been fully booked by the time she made up her mind to travel.

“I was paranoid, confused and mad, why would they do that?” she says. “Covid-19, like death, does not discriminate, we all have to play by the rules, Covid-19 exists in the plane as well,” she says.

“I know that Covid-19 is deadly. Some of my friends and colleagues have lost relatives to it. And so, I was super-scared to realise that social distance was not adhered to in the airplanes.”

Since the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Kenya on March 12, Awino had never been on a plane and she assumed the rules in air transport synced with those on the road.

GSU Mombasa

General Service Unit police officers on patrol near the Moi Avenue roundabout in Mombasa County on May 1, 2020, to ensure adherence to the 7pm-5am curfew for containing the spread of Covid-19.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

Money-minting opportunity

Days after the first case was reported, Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia imposed new measures to curb the spread of the respiratory disease.

He directed that Kenyans observe social distancing, wear masks and always sanitise their hands when using public transport – air, road, water.

Police were to enforce this order. Instead, it appears, they were using the new rules meant to counter a health emergency as a money-minting opportunity, according to Nairobi residents that the Nation interviewed.

If Kenyans had heeded these measures, the fight against the novel coronavirus would have yielded far better results. However, they segregated Kenyans according to class. And, quickly, the war on the deadly virus turned into a cat-and-mouse game, and more of a show of might drawing a line between the haves and the have-nots.

Nairobi resident Kevin Omollo, in an interview with the Nation, shared the same worrying sentiments. He had firsthand experience with law enforcers.

“I live in Kayole, a low-income estate in Nairobi. Despite using public transport every day on my way to and from work, I have never shown any signs of Covid-19. The buses plying the route to the estate flout social distancing rules.”

The police, during a routine traffic check, he said, stopped their bus. Instead of enforcing the government directive, they instead decided to have their hands oiled with as little as $0.5.

“One day, on our way to town, the bus was at full capacity. We had expected that at the police roadblock, the tout would bribe the officers. However, when they seemed not to have agreed, we (excess passengers) fell victim,” Kevin said.

“The police hoarded us into a vehicle parked nearby and it was almost full. The social distancing rule did not apply in that vehicle. We were packed, and some people did not have masks on,” he narrated.

Online wars

In a developing country where most people use public transport when they travel, including minibuses called matatus, social distancing was hardly practised, and that derailed the pandemic fight against Covid-19. Or it seemed so.

But the Health Cabinet secretary has appeared in the news media frequently advising that Covid-19 transcends class, race and gender. His maxim, “Anybody can get it, you can get it – I can get,” has served as a guide for all.

Using Open Source Intelligence (or OSINT), the Nation has established that class wars have been picking up online since the first coronavirus case was reported in Kenya.

A tweet posted by Gabriel Oguda, who comments on topical issues in the Saturday Nation, exactly 10 days after that case was reported, attracted 518 retweets, 1,200 likes and 121 replies reflecting similar concerns expressed in his frustration – over the class differences that the war against the virus was metamorphosing into.

“Government loves talking tough, without action. You're on your own,” lamented Mr Oguda on Twitter. “That social distancing rule is a rumour. In most stages guys were overloading.”

Kenyans, going by the comments on the above tweet, were vexed and feared contracting the deadly virus while using road transport. The situation on planes, however, was different – there was no social distancing.

The government could have offered a solution to the looming standoff. Instead of providing a solution and ensuring that all measures were taken to keep citizens safe, the government announced that a traveller could buy an extra air ticket if he wanted to observe social distance while airborne.

Madaraka Express train attendant

A Madaraka Express train attendant prepares to usher in passengers heading to Mombasa from Nairobi in this file photo.

Photo credit: Pool

Train transport

The Nation has also established that social distancing was not observed on commuter trains in Nairobi and the express Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) between Mombasa and Nairobi.

There are no official records of any form of communication from Kenya Railways urging passengers to physically distance while in trains.

“I used the SGR the other day to travel to Mombasa and the seating arrangement was normal. Nothing like social distancing was needed of us,” said Samuel Karisa, a regular SGR user.

@Ma3Route, an influential Twitter user who posts transport information, also raised concerns about traffic police bribery while enforcing Covid-19 measures.

This thread echoed the disquiet among some Kenyans on the class segregation in the fight against Covid-19 and the mismatch in treatment when it comes to the application of government guidelines.

In a World Health Organization article in October last year, George Njao, director-general of the National Transport and Safety Authority, which is under the Ministry of Transport, decried that the transport sector was a weak link in the fight against Covid-19.

“One matatu carries approximately 300 people in a day,” Mr Njao said. “One sick matatu worker could infect the same number of people in a day…It (Covid-19) is going to change the overall general public health in our transport system.”

Equalising factor

Prof Evaristus Irandu of the University of Nairobi in June last year wrote an article on how public transport was derailing the fight against the virus, attracting over 3,000 readers, according to Google metrics.

The article highlighted the need to stiffen rules and apply guidelines uniformly across the transport sector.

On March 17, 2020, Hansard reports on Kenya’s Parliament show, Senator Mutula Kilonzo made forthright remarks about how class should not be an issue in the fight against the virus.

“First, it is obvious that we are in a crisis. Secondly, it is obvious that we have not taken enough measures. Yesterday, the Cabinet (CS) James Macharia, was surprised that our matatus do not have hand sanitisers and are not clean.

"Covid-19 makes us equal. We are going to realise that we are the same as those people who use matatus, and are not safe. For those of us who live in big mansions, the people who work for us come from slums or other places,” he said.